Crossing the Atlantic during the seventeenth century was a perilous voyage, entailing weeks or months of cramped quarters, inadequate food, and unsanitary conditions. Yet in the late 1500s Englishmen had begun to hazard the venture, and in 1607 they planted their first permanent settlement on the North American continent at Jamestown. By the early 1730s, thirteen separate colonies hugged the seaboard. Although great diversity prevailed among the colonies, most colonists shared a common English heritage and clung to it tenaciously. Their religious attitudes, economic views, political thoughts, and military ideals and institutions were all grounded in English history. In no aspect of colonial life was this heritage more important than in regard to military matters. The colonists’ most revered military institution (the militia) and their most cherished military tradition (fear of a standing army) both came from England.
The English Inheritance
The earliest English settlers arrived in a dangerous New World. The initial colonies represented little more than amphibious landings on a hostile coastline followed by the consolidation of small, insecure beachheads. The settlers did not take possession of an uninhabited land, but settled in regions controlled by various Native American tribes. Fortunately for the colonists, they unwittingly landed in areas that had recently experienced precipitous population losses among the Indians. Europeans made periodic contact with the natives long before they established permanent colonies. These transient visitors left a devastating legacy of smallpox, measles, and other European diseases, for which the natives had no built-in immunities. But the colonists soon learned that the Indians, even in their weakened state, were a formidable adversary. Nor were Indians the only military threat. The English settled in lands also claimed by their European rivals, and the memory of the raids conducted by the Spanish, French, and English against each other’s outposts in the Caribbean and along the Florida coast undoubtedly haunted many colonists. The fear of pillaging buccaneers and pirates who infested coastal waterways compounded the potential problem posed by European enemies.
Colonists faced these threats alone. Although the English monarch authorized their expeditions and granted extensive lands for settlement, the Crown expected the colonists to defend themselves. With few illusions about their precarious position, colonists came to the New World armed and, anticipating conflict, gave prompt attention to defense. Professional soldiers accompanied the expeditions to Jamestown, Plymouth, and succeeding colonies. Indeed, the first heroes in American history were far from ordinary settlers. The profit-seeking Virginia Company hired Captain John Smith, a veteran of Europe’s religious wars, to teach military skills to the settlers at Jamestown in 1607. Other experienced soldiers, such as Lord De La Warr, Sir Thomas Gates, and Sir Thomas Dale, soon followed him. The pious Pilgrims wisely did not rely on God’s favor alone for protection, but employed Captain Myles Standish, a veteran of the Dutch wars for independence, to ensure Plymouth’s success. Although Smith and Standish are the most famous of the soldier-settlers, practically all the other colonies had similar veterans who provided military leadership during the founding period. The importance placed on military preparations could be seen in the attention given to fortifications. Less than a month after their arrival, the settlers at Jamestown had constructed a primitive, triangular fort, and by 1622 the Pilgrims had erected a 2,700-foot-long defensive perimeter guarding their fledgling plantation.
The most important response to the dangerous military realities was the creation of a militia system in each colony. The British military heritage, the all-pervasive sense of military insecurity, and the inability of the economically poor colonies to maintain an expensive professional army all combined to guarantee that the Elizabethan militia would be transplanted to the North American wilderness. No colonial institution was more complex than the militia. In many respects it was static and homogenous, varying little from colony to colony and from generation to generation. Yet the militia was also evolutionary and heterogeneous, as diverse as the thirteen colonies and ever changing within individual colonies.
At the heart of the militia was the principle of universal military obligation for all able-bodied males. Colonial laws regularly declared that all able-bodied men between certain ages automatically belonged to the militia. Yet within the context of this immutable principle, variations abounded. While the normal age limits were from sixteen to sixty, this was not universal practice. Connecticut, for example, began with an upper age limit of sixty but gradually reduced it to forty-five. Sometimes the lower age limit was eighteen or even twenty-one. Each colony also established occupational exemptions from militia training. Invariably the exemption list began small but grew to become a seemingly endless list that reduced the militia’s theoretical strength.
If a man was in the militia, he participated in periodic musters, or training days, with the other members of his unit. Attendance at musters was compulsory; militia laws levied fines for nonattendance. During the initial years of settlement, when dangers seemed particularly acute, musters were frequent. However, as the Indian threat receded, the trend was toward fewer muster days, and by the early 1700s most colonies had decided that four peacetime musters per year were sufficient. Whether few or many, muster days helped forge a link between religious duty and military service, particularly in New England. An integral part of each training day (and of all military expeditions) was a sermon, which invariably fostered an aggressive militancy by emphasizing that the Bible sanctioned martial activity and that warfare was a true Christian’s sacred duty. “Hence it is no wayes unbecoming a Christian to learn to be a Souldier,” Chaplain Samuel Nowell preached to Massachusetts militiamen in 1678, because being a soldier was “a Credit, a praise and a glory.” When the colonists unsheathed their swords, they did so in God’s name, serene in the belief that the Lord was on their side against their heathen and Papist enemies and that whatever happened was God’s will.
Militiamen had to provide and maintain their own weapons. Militia laws detailed the required weaponry, which underwent a rapid evolution in the New World. Initially a militiaman was armed much like a European soldier, laden with armor, equipped with either a pike or matchlock musket, and carrying a sword. But Indian warfare was not European warfare, and most of this weaponry proved of limited value. By the mid-1670s colonial armaments had been revolutionized. Armor, which made it difficult to traverse rugged terrain and pursue Indians, had disappeared. Pikes were equally cumbersome and of little use against Indians, who neither stood their ground when assaulted nor made massed charges. At times the matchlock was superior to Indian bows and arrows, but its disadvantages were many. It took two minutes to load, and it misfired approximately three times in every ten shots. The weapon discharged when a slow-burning match1 came in contact with the priming powder, but keeping the match lit on rainy or windy days was difficult, and the combination of a burning match and gunpowder in close proximity often resulted in serious accidents. By the midseventeenth century, the matchlock had given way to the flintlock musket. Depending on flint scraping against steel for discharge, flintlocks could be loaded in thirty seconds and misfired less often. Swords remained common weapons, but colonists increasingly preferred hatchets for close-quarter combat. Although both weapons were valuable in a melee, hatchets were also useful for a variety of domestic purposes.
Militia laws emphasized the importance of a well-armed citizenry in numerous ways. To ensure that each man had the requisite weapons and accoutrements, colonies instituted a review of arms, imposing the duty of conducting it on militia officers, muster masters, or other specially appointed officials. Each colony’s law detailed how destitute citizens could be armed at public expense, and legislatures provided for public arsenals to supplement individually owned armaments. Colonies also required that even men exempted from attending musters should be completely armed and equipped. Although the basic tactical unit in all the colonies was the company, or trainband, regional variations and changes over time were as important as the superficial uniformity. No standardized company size existed, some companies containing as few as sixty-five men and others as many as two hundred. Some trainbands elected their officers, but in others the governors appointed them. Southern colonies, with widely dispersed populations, often organized companies on a countywide basis; while in New England, with its towns and villages, individual communities contained their own trainbands. As populations increased and the number of trainbands grew, colonies organized companies into regiments to preserve efficient management. As one last example of the variety and change within militia units, the initial all-infantry composition evolved into a mixture of infantry and mounted units, the latter providing increased maneuverability and speed, which were valuable assets in Indian warfare.
Militia officers, like colonial politicians, overwhelmingly came from the upper classes, and men moved with ease from important political positions into high military offices and vice versa. The practice of plural officeholding, whereby a man simultaneously held political and military office, epitomized the integration of political and military leadership. For example, in Salem, Massachusetts, between 1765 and 1774, twelve of the twenty-nine active militia officers also held important positions in the municipal government. Similar instances could be cited for other colonies.
The militia was, above all else, a local institution, and officers rarely ordered their men to serve far from home. Each colony organized its militia for its own defense, a principle frequently embodied in legislation prohibiting the militia’s use outside a colony’s boundaries. Every colony faced Indian attacks, worried about rival Europeans, and experienced financial stringencies. How could Virginia help South Carolina without rendering itself less secure, or New York assist Pennsylvania without subjecting itself to increased danger? It could not—or at least it believed that it could not.
Within a colony civil authority controlled military matters, establishing America’s revered tradition of civilian control over the military. However, a shift occurred in the governmental branch exercising predominant influence over the militia. Initially the governors dominated, often receiving their power directly from the King, who gave them wide latitude in appointing officers and waging war. But people considered the governor analogous to the King, the colonial assemblies analogous to Parliament. In England the King and Parliament, and in the colonies governors and assemblies, battled for supremacy. The legislative branch emerged triumphant in both Britain and America. By the mideighteenth century a governor’s military authority lacked substance without the cooperation of the legislature, which had gained almost exclusive control over expenditures, including military appropriations. Using the power of the purse as a lever, legislatures gradually assumed control of the militia. By the Revolution, civilian authority over the military meant legislative control.
As the frontier advanced, the militia decayed. The rot appeared first in the more densely settled seaboard regions, where the Indian threat had diminished by the waning years of the seventeenth century and spread into the interior. Militia service became more of a social or ceremonial function than a military function. The fewer muster days witnessed little serious training and instead became occasions for picnics for the privates and elegant dinners for the officers. Men clamored for more restricted age limitations and an expanded exemption list and complained about the burden of maintaining weapons and equipment. Increasingly men sought militia officership not from a sense of duty but because, as one critic wrote, they had “an amazing infatuation” with military titles as symbols of social prominence. Authorities everywhere laxly enforced the militia laws.
As the common militia based on universal and obligatory service deteriorated, a new phenomenon emerged, partially filling the military void. In George Washington’s words, some men always had “a natural fondness for Military parade,” enjoyed soldiering, and willingly devoted time and money to it. Thus “volunteer militia” companies arose, distinct from the common militia, with their own uniforms, equipment, organization, and esprit de corps. Like so much of the American military heritage, independent volunteer militia units traced their roots to England, especially to London’s Honorable Artillery Company, chartered in 1537. The first similar New World organization was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, founded in 1638. Exclusive little societies of fifty to one hundred enthusiastic and relatively affluent men, the volunteer organizations kept the martial spirit alive in regions more and more remote from immediate danger.
The Diversity of Colonial Military Forces
Paradoxically, trainbands and regiments were not combat units, rarely functioning in warfare as colonial assemblies organized them on paper. In fact, legislatures did not design the common militia as a fighting force except, perhaps, for extreme local emergencies. Instead it served primarily as an induction center, a training school, and a reservoir of partially trained manpower. Upon reaching the requisite age, a man automatically joined his local trainband; then he underwent periodic training for the next thirty years or so and acquired at least a rudimentary knowledge of military practice. In wartime, authorities formed expeditions by tapping this manpower pool, drawing men out of the trainbands on an individual basis and organizing them into fighting units.
In theory the militia could provide local defense during an emergency, such as an Indian or rival European assault on an exposed settlement. During such crises settlers had little hope of assistance from the colonial government. The unexpected nature of an attack and the poor communications precluded an appeal to the government for timely aid. And the nature of the resulting warfare—usually little more than guerrilla skirmishes amidst the enveloping wilderness—placed a premium on local self-reliance. Knowing they might be unable to exert much influence over events in isolated areas, colonial officials delegated a great deal of power to local officials, but this decentralization of authority was of questionable value. Suppose an Indian war party suddenly descended upon a frontier outpost. Even if word of the attack reached local militia officers, travel was so slow that a complete trainband could not be mobilized and dispatched in time to save the settlement. Nor would it have been wise to send the trainband out: If all the able-bodied men in an area rushed to one beleaguered location, the entire vicinity would be left unprotected against further enemy depredations. Even for local defense the militia, as organized on paper, was of limited effectiveness.
As a practical solution for the problem of local defense, pioneers adopted a stronghold concept. Garrison houses, blockhouses, and stockades dotted the frontier. When danger threatened, inhabitants crowded into these fortified structures. The men at the loopholes were militiamen, but, few in number, they acted as individuals rather than members of a militia unit. The stronghold concept had disadvantages. Maintaining a large number of people created logistical problems, not only for arms and ammunition but also for food and water. Abandoning homes and farms for the security of a garrison house or stockade left other property vulnerable to destruction. The colonists, in effect, allowed themselves to be surrounded, leaving no avenue for retreat. Fortunately for them, Indians rarely conducted siege operations, and strongholds could often survive. Strongholds may have preserved settlers’ lives, but the smoky plumes from burning homes, the steady stream of refugees, and the long roll call of abandoned settlements all attested to the militia’s inability to provide defense when and where colonists most desperately needed it. The militia failed to perform its theoretical local defense function, and in a war’s early stages the frontier invariably retracted toward the more heavily populated seaboard.
The militia was more effective as a local police force or as a standby posse comitatus. It preserved the domestic peace, protected propertied and privileged colonists from the disadvantaged elements within society, and quelled movements against the established political order. Militiamen frequently performed riot control duty. In the south, colonies merged their slave patrols with the militia and converted it into an internal police force to recover fugitive slaves and suppress slave insurrections. New Englanders in essence converted their militia into a civil police by mating it with the night watch. As a final example, when the Regulators of western North Carolina demanded substantial local governmental reforms and defied colonial authority during the late 1760s and early 1770s, the governor mobilized a thousand militiamen, who routed the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771. Thus a sharp distinction arose between the militia as a domestic police and a colony’s expeditionary military forces.
When authorities launched a military expedition, they did not “call out the militia” per se. Instead they commissioned officers specifically to command the expedition and established manpower quotas for militia districts. Sometimes the commanding officers appointed for an expeditionary force were regular militia officers, but oftentimes they were not. Based upon a formula related to population, the quotas demanded a certain number of men from each affected trainband. Sound reasons supported the quota system. A community needed most of its able-bodied men to defend it from an enemy that often seemed to appear magically where least expected. Settlements also required men at home to plant, tend, and harvest the crops. What good would be accomplished by creating a large army only to have the soldiers in the field and their dependents at home face the grim specter of starvation?
Militia districts filled their quotas by a combination of volunteers, draftees, substitutes, and hirelings, with volunteering being the preferred method. To spur volunteering from among the men in the trainbands, governments usually offered volunteers a bounty. Even lucrative bounties rarely enticed sufficient volunteers, in which case militia officials drafted men out of their trainbands. However, a draftee could avoid service by obtaining a discharge from the governor or a high-ranking militia officer, by providing a substitute, or by paying a commutation fine. Authorities used the money collected from fines to hire additional men or to buy arms and ammunition for destitute soldiers or the community arsenal. A draftee unable to obtain a discharge or a substitute and too poor to pay the fine had one last option to avoid soldiering: He could flee. Movement of men from town to town evading wartime service was a common problem.
The men serving in expeditions increasingly came from society’s lower classes. Individuals of wealth and status were often exempt and unlikely to volunteer, and they could easily secure a discharge, find a substitute, or pay the commutation fine. In fact, colonies sometimes consciously excluded more prosperous citizens from active duty. For example, in the mid-1750s Virginia sought to raise 1,270 men for service. Local justices of the peace, field officers, and militia captains were to hold a court of inquiry, examining the occupations of men between the ages of eighteen and fifty on the muster rolls and making a list of all able-bodied men “as shall be found loitering and neglecting to labor for reasonable wages; all who run from their habitations, leaving wives or children without suitable means for subsistence, and all other idle, vagrant, or dissolute persons, wandering abroad without betaking themselves to some lawful employment.” The court was also to list “such able-bodied men, not being freeholders or housekeepers qualified to vote at an election of burgesses, as they shall think proper. . . .” A second court would meet the quota by drafting men from among those on the list, which automatically omitted the colony’s best citizens.
Yet, as always, colonial military affairs were not subject to easy generalizations, and an acute threat could result in an expeditionary force that more nearly represented a colony’s social composition. For example, at a time when Virginia was raising its army almost exclusively from among the poorest elements of its population, Massachusetts was acting quite differently. Far more immediately threatened by the French in Canada than was Virginia, Massachusetts fielded military forces during the 1750s that were not heavily weighted toward the permanently poor and vagrants but instead reflected the colony’s overall social composition.
From whatever social class they came, once enlisted for an expedition the men who filled the ranks believed they had a legal contract with the provincial government that could not be breached without the mutual consent of both parties. Their military ethos contained little of the emphasis on loyalty, subordination, and discipline that characterized European armies. When a colony failed to fulfill its legal obligations by not providing sufficient rum and food, by forcing men to serve beyond the expiration of their term of service, or by demanding additional duties not covered in the initial contract, colonial soldiers felt that their contract was void. Once authorities broke the contract, the troops felt no compunction against staging a mutiny or deserting in mass, even in the midst of a campaign. To the colonial soldiers these actions were legal and sensible, but to British regulars serving alongside the provincials during the colonial wars, such violations of military discipline were intolerable. No wonder British Major General James Abercromby, who observed colonial troops during the French and Indian War, complained that they were “the rif-raf of the continent.” All too often they were! Not only were they primarily indigents and down-and-outers, but they did not behave as European professional soldiers thought they should behave.
Expeditions composed of militiamen drawn from the common militia’s manpower reservoir represented only one type of military activity. Sometimes authorities sanctioned the formation of ad hoc volunteer companies bearing no official relationship to the militia. Two famous examples occurred in New England during King Philip’s War. One company, commanded by Captain Samuel Moseley, was a conglomeration of apprentices, servants, seamen, and even a few convicted pirates who had in fact been captured by Moseley and gained their release from prison by agreeing to serve. Captain Benjamin Church, one of the most remarkable Indian fighters in American history, led the other. In July 1676, the governor of Plymouth Colony authorized Church to raise a volunteer company of about 200 men, consisting of not more than 60 whites augmented by approximately 140 friendly Indians. Volunteers, who often came from the lowest social strata, were normally outside the formal militia structure, which excluded Indians, criminals, servants, and men on the move, such as seamen. Bold and aggressive, these men served in anticipation of a rich reward of captured Indian booty and prisoners, who could be sold as slaves.
Some colonies also periodically tried to develop a static defensive line by building forts along the frontier. Virginia, for example, built four forts in 1645–1646 and undertook similar projects throughout the colonial era. Garrisons raised from the militia manned the strategically situated forts. In contrast to typical militia expeditions, garrison troops served for extended periods of time (up to a year in some cases) and in that respect resembled temporary standing armies. Forts often created more problems than they solved: The wooden structures decayed, they were expensive to build and maintain, garrison troops inevitably suffered from low morale, and, perhaps most important, Indians easily infiltrated between the forts. To ameliorate this last problem, Virginia also created “scout” or “ranger” units that patrolled the frontier between and beyond the forts on long-range reconnaissance missions, hoping to expose or disrupt attacks before they descended in full force upon settled areas. Thus colonial military forces were extremely diverse. Supplementing the peacetime common militia, from which authorities organized wartime expeditions through a quota system, were volunteer militia units, garrison troops and rangers, and volunteer companies completely outside the militia framework.
During the first seventy years of settlement a series of Indian wars severely tested colonial military institutions. The natives’ overall initial reaction to the pale-skinned arrivals was cautious hospitality, but within two decades the whites’ land greed, plus a general cultural incompatibility, created open hostility. Before considering the resulting wars, it is necessary to understand Indian methods of warfare, the problems Indian tactics posed for the whites, and the ways in which the Europeans overcame these difficulties.
Before the white man’s arrival tribes living along the east coast engaged in endemic warfare, but the fighting was seldom costly in lives or property. To the first explorers and settlers, Indian warfare seemed almost playful or sporting. Roger Williams observed that Indian warfare was less bloody than European warfare, and many whites reacted contemptuously to the mild manner in which Indians fought. For instance, John Underhill affirmed that “they might fight seven years and not kill seven men. They came not near to one another, but shot, remote, and not point-blank, as we often do with our bullets, but at rovers, and then they gaze up in the sky to see where the arrow falls, and not until it is fallen do they shoot again. The fight is more for past-time, than to conquer and subdue enemies.” That is, whites initially encountered Indians who did not wage total war, rarely striking at noncombatants or engaging in the systematic destruction of food supplies and property.
These original observations were not universally applicable. As with conflicts among whites, the scope, intensity, and magnitude of Indian warfare differed depending on prevailing conditions and ideas and hence varied across time and geography. While some Indian “wars” consisted of little more than persistent low-intensity raids to inflict revenge, acquire plunder, or take captives, others were wars to the death, designed to destroy an enemy, capture prime land, or at least establish hegemony over other tribes. These wars had nothing sporting about them. Instead they featured prolonged campaigns, strict military discipline, pitched battles, fortified positions, sieges, and the unmerciful slaying of women and children.
Native Americans were shrewd strategists, clever tacticians, and resilient warriors. Since they had no written languages, Indian strategic debates cannot be reconstructed from records housed in some repository but must be inferred from their actions. As for their tactics, the eastern woodland Indians generally fought in small war parties that kept on the move, acted in isolation, and repeatedly conducted sophisticated ambushes and raids. Warriors would move stealthily, spread out over a considerable distance to avoid being ambushed themselves, and rapidly concentrate for a whirling attack—often at night, during storms, or in dense fog so as to catch their adversaries off guard and confuse them. Then the Indians would vanish into the wilderness. Rarely would they stand and fight if hard pressed; their warrior ethic lacked the European concept of holding a piece of land no matter what the cost in casualties. These hit-and-run tactics baffled and angered the English, who did not lack “courage or resolution, but could not discern or find an enemy to fight with, yet were galled by the enemy.”
Indian hit-and-run tactics were dangerous enough when executed with bows and arrows but became even more deadly when mated with flintlock muskets. Ironically, the Indians were more proficient than the colonists at using flintlocks. Having been taught hunting skills and the use of aimed fire with bows and arrows since childhood, the Indians readily adapted flintlocks to their guerrilla warfare. Colonial legislatures passed laws banning the firearms trade with the natives, at times even imposing the death penalty for violators, but Indians managed to acquire European weapons, often through illegal trade. And at least in New England, they learned how to cast bullets, replace worn flints, restock muskets, and make a variety of other repairs. Only one technical capability continued to elude the Indians: They never mastered gunpowder production and therefore experienced frequent powder shortages.
In contrast to the Indians, few whites had been hunters in the Old World or knew how to shoot well. Moreover, the colonists were steeped in formal battlefield tactics, which included firing unaimed mass volleys rather than aiming at individual targets. These may have worked well on Europe’s open plains but were virtually useless in the dense North American forests against an enemy that neither launched nor endured frontal assaults. Yet most colonists made little effort to adjust to Indian-style warfare. On muster days militiamen practiced the complicated motions and maneuvers prescribed by European drill manuals. One commonly used drill book described fifty-six steps for loading and firing a musket. In battle many militiamen never lived to crucial Step 43: “Give fire breast high.” And despite blundering into ambush after ambush, colonists persisted in marching in close order, so that, as one Indian said, “It was as easy to hit them as to hit a house.” The settlers’ reluctance to adjust to New World conditions was partly psychological. They considered Indian warfare barbaric; if Europeans fought in the same way, would they not also be barbarians?
The English compensated for the militia system’s weaknesses by employing Indian allies, by waging ruthless warfare against the foundations of Indian society, and at least in a few cases by adopting Native American methods. Colonists learned—often the hard way—that Indians were the only match for Indians. Whites were so inept at forest warfare that launching an expedition without Indian allies invited disaster. The English especially needed natives as scouts to keep from blundering into an ambush, but native allies were also invaluable as spies, guides, and sometimes fighters. Fortunately for the whites, Native Americans were not united but consisted of tribes, subtribes, and quasi-independent bands. Virtually every tribe considered itself “the People”—not “a People” but “the People”—and various tribes and subtribes held such deep-seated suspicions and hatreds toward one another that they constantly struggled over territorial rights, power, and the loyalty of potential allies. This intertribal enmity allowed the whites to divide and conquer, for they invariably found Indians who wanted access to European goods and welcomed Euro-American assistance in fighting traditional foes. When Europeans paid their Indian allies, gave them weapons, and fought alongside them, the recipients considered themselves fortunate. European largess, firepower, and reinforcements allowed one tribe to strike more effectively at another tribe with which it was already at war.
Rarely did whites fight Indians; instead, Indians killed Indians, or whites and some Indians fought other Indians, or some whites and some Indians battled other whites and Indians. Determining exactly who was exploiting whom in these conflicts was difficult. Europeans, of course, realized that intertribal tensions could be exploited. But many tribes perceived that they could exploit animosities among white people and cleverly manipulated the British, French, Spanish, and (eventually) Americans against one another and against their native enemies for their own purposes.
Even when augmented by friendly Indians, colonists had a difficult time bringing the quick-moving warriors to decisive battle, and the real objective of colonial strategy became enemy villages, food supplies, clothing, and noncombatants. In a trend that continued for nearly three hundred years, white settlers waged war against Native Americans with remorseless, extravagant violence. Gratuitous devastation and killing was not unique to North America; the English perpetrated similar atrocities in Ireland, and the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) at times seemed to be little more than a long roll call of atrocities. Nor were the Indians always on the side of the angels; ferocity, savagery, and barbarous behavior were common to both sides. Shepherded by Indian scouts, often guided by Indian informers, and invariably accompanied by Indian warriors, colonial forces struck at Indian villages, killing old men, women, and children, scalping and raping, burning homes, and destroying crops and food caches. Men who believed they were fighting to protect their own homes and families from savage heathens eagerly torched Indian dwellings and slaughtered noncombatants. They pursued survivors ruthlessly, executing or enslaving captives, and many fugitives died of starvation and exposure.
Along with Indian allies and their terror tactics, the settlers had another advantage, one that nobody at the time understood: Disease. Europeans spread Old World diseases such as typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox. Because Native Americans had no immunity against these unseen killers, a tribe was often reduced by 50 to 90 percent, leaving survivors demoralized, and sometimes even suicidal, as they watched loved ones die painful, rotting deaths and their communities, tightly woven together with bonds of kinship and clan, disintegrate. As just one example, in 1633–1634 a smallpox epidemic reduced the once-powerful Pequot tribe from 13,000 to 3,000, rendering them vulnerable to retribution from Indian foes and conquest by the Puritans.
Waging war against society rather than against warriors was new and shocking to the Indians. Captain Underhill, who was so condescending toward the gentleness of Indian warfare, recorded the reaction of native allies who watched the English destroy an enemy Indian community. The Indians expressed astonishment at the way the English fought, crying out that it was wicked “because it is too furious, and slays too many men.”
Nevertheless, when Indian and European military cultures collided, an acculturation process took place as the adversaries adjusted to each other’s technology and methods. By the late 1600s the colonists had shed such cumbersome accoutrements as armor, pikes, and swords. And while formal militia training had not changed, some expeditionary forces began to employ Indian guerrilla techniques, including the use of cover and concealment and aimed fire. Meanwhile the Indians embraced certain aspects of European technology, including the flintlock, and quickly accepted the colonists’ “war to the death” mentality. Although Indians had fought with each other long before whites arrived in the New World, the newcomers taught them how to wage war more ruthlessly.
Fighting for Survival
At dawn on Good Friday, March 22, 1622, Virginia was at peace. Just a few months before, Opechancanough, the chief of the Indian confederation in the Tidewater area, had assured the whites that “he held the peace so firme, the sky should fall [before] he dissolved it. . . .” Relations between Indians and settlers seemed amiable. Suddenly the Indians fell upon the unsuspecting whites and, as one contemporary put it, “basely and barbarously” murdered them, “not sparing eyther age or sex, man, woman, or childe.” This surprise attack was an excellent example of Native American strategic thinking, as Opechancanough orchestrated simultaneous assaults against farms and villages scattered for eighty miles across the landscape, certainly no easy task in an era without modern communications. Within hours the Indians had killed 25 percent of Virginia’s population. Terrified survivors abandoned outlying plantations and huddled together in fewer settlements, where they planned a counterattack despite their meager resources. Fewer than two hundred men remained for active service, and arms and ammunition were in short supply.
The colonists enlisted the Potomack Indians’ aid against Opechancanough’s warriors, appealed to the King for weapons, and through a mighty effort launched military expeditions. For ten years the First Tidewater War ravaged eastern Virginia. Throughout the hot, humid summers and the cool, dreary winters the colonists, guided by Indian allies and defectors from Opechancanough’s forces, struck at enemy villages, cornfields, and fishing weirs. Although it inflicted severe punishment on the Indians, this continual effort imposed tremendous strains on colonial society. By the early 1630s both sides approached exhaustion, and in 1632 the governor signed a peace treaty with the major tribes in the enemy confederation.
The peace was short-lived. In 1644 Opechancanough, now nearly a hundred years old, directed another surprise attack reminiscent of 1622. His warriors killed nearly five hundred colonists during the first morning, more than had fallen on Good Friday in 1622, but the effect was not as devastating. Instead of striking a feeble outpost as they had two decades before, the Indians now attacked a rapidly maturing society of some eight thousand settlers with a much greater ability to defend itself. In the Second Tidewater War, which lasted only two years, the Indians suffered a decisive defeat, as colonists pursued their previous strategy of destroying the foundations of Indian society. Colonists captured Opechancanough; after he spent a short period in captivity, a soldier shot him. His death symbolized the demise of any future resistance to white expansion in the Tidewater area.
The importance of the Tidewater Wars transcended the fact of ultimate Indian defeat. Equally significant was the resultant attitude toward the natives. When Englishmen settled in America, they had a dual image of Indians. Viewing the natives as noble savages, some settlers felt a sense of mission to convert them to Christianity and bring them the blessings of “civilization.” But other settlers considered the Indians ignoble savages, brutal heathens prone to treachery and violence. Although some people continued to advocate moderate treatment of the Indians, the 1622 attack, seemingly without provocation, confirmed the ignoble savage image in the minds of most settlers, ensuring that the predominant attitude toward Indians would be hatred, mingled with fear and contempt. It also released white inhibitions in waging war. Facing what they perceived as an inhuman enemy, Englishmen responded with extreme measures. Many spoke of exterminating the natives. For example, the Virginia Company urged “a sharp revenge upon the bloody miscreantes, even to the measure that they intended against us, the rooting them out from being longer a people uppon the face of the Earth.” At the least, settlers wanted to subjugate the Indians completely, since, as the Virginia assembly repeatedly declared during the war, relations between whites and Indians were irreconcilable and the natives were perpetual enemies.
After 1622, then, whites responded ruthlessly to any Indian provocation. The colonists punished the offending tribe (or tribes) severely and, just as important, terrified other tribes into submission by setting a frightful example of what happened to natives who aroused colonial wrath. A perfect illustration of this occurred in New England in 1637. In the early 1630s, before being devastated by new diseases, the Pequots were the most powerful tribe in New England. They had a well-deserved reputation for ferocity, gaining the enmity of both their white and Indian neighbors. When a complex series of events led to war between the Pequots and the English, practically all other natives in the area joined with the whites.
The major “battle” of the Pequot War took place at a palisaded Pequot fort along the Mystic River. Colonial troops commanded by Captain John Mason of Connecticut and Captain Underhill of Massachusetts Bay, accompanied by several hundred friendly Indians, attacked at dawn. Barking dogs alerted the Pequots, many of them women and children, who briefly put up a stout defense until Mason and Underhill personally set fire to the wigwams inside the fort. Within half an hour all but a handful of the Pequots had been put to the sword or had burned to death, fouling the air with a sickly scent and, as Mason put it, “dunging the Ground with their flesh.” Accounts differ as to how many Indians perished, but the number probably approached four or five hundred. The attackers lost only two dead and twenty wounded.
The slaughter at the Mystic River fort broke the back of Pequot resistance, and survivors sought asylum with neighboring tribes or fled northward toward the homeland of the Mohawk Indians. But mere victory did not satisfy the colonists. Having learned from Virginia’s misfortune in 1622, they thirsted for annihilation. Aided by Indian allies, New Englanders systematically hunted down the fugitives. The Mohawks were especially helpful, capturing the Pequot chief, Sassacus, and forty of his warriors. The war reduced the once fearsome Pequot tribe to impotence, and other tribes warily pondered the totality of the colonists’ victory that, ironically, they had helped achieve.
Following the Pequots’ destruction, New England experienced nearly forty years of uneasy peace before King Philip’s War erupted in 1675. The war took its name from the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, Metacomet, upon whom the English had conferred the classical name of Philip as a symbol of esteem and friendship. They treated Philip with respect because he was the son of Massasoit, who had signed a peace treaty with the English in 1621 and faithfully adhered to it until his death four decades later. But Philip was not Massasoit. Seeing his people increasingly subjected to English domination, he became restive, and gradually Wampanoag hospitality turned into hostility. Some evidence indicates that Philip tried to form an Indian confederation to launch a coordinated attack against the whites, but whatever his intentions, the war began before any widespread conspiracy had matured. Philip fought as one of several important chieftains, not as the leader of an intertribal confederation.
The war began in a small way in a limited area but eventually engulfed New England, bringing suffering to nearly all its English and native inhabitants. In June 1675, a few Wampanoags looted and burned several abandoned buildings in a frontier community. The destruction was more an act of vandalism than a military attack, but as so often in the relations between whites and Indians, seemingly inconsequential events had momentous consequences. Plymouth colonists mobilized to retaliate, the Wampanoags prepared to defend themselves, and before long a war was in progress. Almost immediately the conflict took an adverse turn for the English when the Nipmuck tribe joined Philip’s warriors. Fearful colonists wondered how many other tribes would join the Wampanoags and especially worried about the Narragansetts, the most powerful tribe in the area and the Wampanoags’ traditional enemies. In 1637 the Narragansetts had helped eliminate the Pequots, but in the intervening years they became truculent as whites encroached upon their Rhode Island homeland. Now English efforts to elicit a firm pledge of friendship from them gained only an equivocal response.
Rather than abide fickle friends, the colonists delivered a preemptive strike against the Narragansetts, resulting in the war’s most famous battle, the Great Swamp Fight of December 19, 1675. Many Narragansett families had taken up winter residence in a secret fortified village in Rhode Island’s Great Swamp. During the morning and early afternoon of the 19th, a day memorable for its bitter cold and the tremendous snowfall shrouding the land, an intercolonial army trudged the last few miles to the Indian fort. The governor of Plymouth Colony, Josiah Winslow, commanded the 1,100-man force, composed of soldiers from Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut and a substantial contingent of Indian allies, including a Narragansett defector who led the army to the concealed encampment. The Narragansetts resisted with valor, but the English gained the upper hand by resorting to fire, as they had previously done along the Mystic River. The immediate Indian losses numbered in the hundreds, but of equal importance was the destruction of the Indians’ clothing, housing, and winter food supply. Those Narragansetts fleeing into the swamp carried practically nothing with them and faced the grim prospect of freezing or starving to death.
The Narragansetts had suffered a stunning defeat, but the colonial victory was not cause for unmitigated joy. Colonial casualties were about 20 percent of the army. Furthermore, the Narragansetts still had considerable fighting power, and the preemptive attack pushed the enraged tribe into the enemy camp. Still, though tainted by the casualty list and the prospect of additional enemies, the victory bolstered sagging morale. Until the Great Swamp Fight the colonial effort had been inept. One explanation for the initial blunders was the failure to use Indian allies. Despite many contemptible actions by whites toward even friendly Indians, approximately half the natives of New England refused to join the Wampanoags. However, when the war began, the settlers viewed practically all Indians with suspicion, fearing they might be plotting to repeat Good Friday of 1622 on a grander scale, and were reluctant to employ them. By the spring of 1676 necessity overrode prejudice and suspicion, and with Indian assistance the strategy of waging total war against Indian society became more successful.
Two of New England’s most famous soldiers were William Turner and Benjamin Church. Leading 150 volunteers, in May 1676 Turner attacked a huge Indian base camp on the Connecticut River, killing hundreds of women and children and destroying a large cache of ammunition and two forges that the Indians used to repair firearms. Just as the colonists completed their destruction, Indian warriors counterattacked and inflicted severe losses on Turner’s command, but irreparable damage to the Indians’ cause had already been done. Church, who used Indian auxiliaries and imitated Indian methods, was New England’s foremost war hero. He had participated in the Great Swamp Fight and then retired from the war until the summer of 1676, when he offered to form a volunteer company of Indians and whites and fight Indians by fighting like Indians, emulating their stealthy guerrilla tactics. Church personally persuaded the small Sakonnet tribe to abandon Philip and then enlisted the Sakonnet warriors into his own company. His men captured Philip’s wife and nine-year-old son and, guided by one of Philip’s own men turned traitor, also killed the Wampanoag sachem on August 12, 1676. Church ordered Philip’s head and hands cut off and had the body quartered; then each quarter was hung from a separate tree.
Although the roundup of stragglers went on for several months, Philip’s death marked the end of concerted Indian resistance. For the English the war’s cost was grievous: expenses of £100,000 and debts larger than the colony’s property value, three thousand fresh graves out of a white population of only 52,000, hundreds of homes burned, thousands of cattle killed. But white society recovered. The Indians did not. King Philip’s War was analogous to the Second Tidewater War, as it settled the question of whether Indians or whites would dominate the region. The conflict reduced the once-proud Wampanoags, Nipmucks, and Narragansetts to insignificance. Even tribes allied with the English suffered acute degradation as the natives rapidly declined in the war’s aftermath. A visitor to New England in 1687 noted: “There is Nothing to fear from the Savages, for they are few in Number. The last Wars they had with the English . . . have reduced them to a small number, and consequently they are incapable of defending themselves.”
Simultaneously with this New England war, Virginia endured a curious affair known as Bacon’s Rebellion, which was part Indian war, part civil insurrection. The chain of events precipitating the rebellion would make good comic opera, had the results not been so lethal. In 1675 whites murdered some members of the friendly Susquehannock Indians, forcing the tribe onto the warpath. When the Susquehannocks retaliated, Virginians divided on how to respond. Governor William Berkeley represented one viewpoint. For reasons of humanity and policy, he believed colonists should differentiate between friendly and hostile Indians, protecting the former and waging war only against the latter. The governor knew of the recent upheaval in New England and wanted to preserve the loyalty of neighboring Indians, whose help would be essential if war broke out in Virginia too. To protect the frontier, Berkeley proposed a series of forts manned by militiamen; to reassure Virginians of the inability of subjugated Indians in their midst to do any harm, he disarmed the natives. Nathaniel Bacon, Berkeley’s cousin by marriage, symbolized the other perspective. Bacon believed all Indians were enemies and launched a crusade to kill them without distinguishing between hostile and loyal tribes. Bacon’s attitude represented the majority of frontiersmen who, resenting the expense of maintaining Berkeley’s forts, wanted to raise volunteer companies and slaughter Indians indiscriminately. When Berkeley opposed the formation of volunteer units, Bacon defied him, becoming an unofficial, uncommissioned “General of Volunteers.” Thus a dispute over Indian policy bred civil revolt.
Under Bacon’s leadership the volunteer frontiersmen did not kill a single enemy Indian, contenting themselves with persecuting and slaughtering innocents. Meantime, Bacon also waged civil war against Governor Berkeley’s loyal forces. The whole sorry incident ended when Bacon died of the “Bloody Flux” (dysentery) in October 1676. The rebellion against constituted authority soon sputtered to a conclusion, and in the spring authorities reached a peace agreement with the terrified friendly tribes, whom Bacon’s volunteers had driven from their homes.
In the hundred years prior to the American Revolution, colonists fought other wars strictly against Indians. For example, in 1711 the Tuscarora Indians in North Carolina launched a surprise attack that began the Tuscarora War (1711–1713). And in 1715 the Yamassee Indians staged an attack in South Carolina, beginning the Yamassee War, which intermittently sputtered on until 1728, with the Indians, as usual, being defeated. But purely Indian wars were relatively unimportant following King Philip’s War. After 1689 English colonists fought a series of wars against rival European colonies in which both sides made liberal use of Indian allies. By then the colonists had developed attitudes toward military institutions and war that set them apart from the European experience. First, unlike European nations, the colonies did not develop professional armies, instead relying on a militia system. During the Indian wars from 1622 to 1676, colonists gained confidence in this system and romanticized it, believing that citizen-soldiers defending their homes were far superior to an army of mercenaries. From their perspective they were at least partially correct. The militia had its deficiencies, but it proved adequate, since the Indians were the vanquished, not the whites. Second, the colonists did not enjoy an “Age of Limited Warfare” like that which prevailed in Europe from the midseventeenth to the mideighteenth century. To the colonists (and to the Indians), war was a matter of survival. Consequently, at the very time European nations strove to restrain war’s destructiveness, the colonists waged it with ruthless ferocity, purposefully striking at noncombatants and enemy property. The colonial wars fought between 1689 and 1763 perpetuated the attitudes fostered by the military experience between 1607 and 1676. Colonists remained disdainful, even fearful, of professional soldiers and augmented their quest for the Indians’ subjugation with an equally intense desire for the complete removal of French influence from North America.